General Photography

Learning Something New

About ten years ago, I began to play with photography as something more than just taking snapshots to record events. I began to regard it as a hobby, a skill I wished to improve upon so that others would want to look at my photographs because they were pretty or thought provoking or interesting. Now, I want to be clear, I have not been working on this consistently over the last ten years, but I have, at least intermittently, worked at becoming a better photographer.

I am a much better photographer than I was. Family members and some friends tell me I’m a great photographer. I know better. I take a nice photo, but I’m not even among the top ranked of the amateurs I know (see Neil Schulman, for example, or Aaron Hockley). They are truly amazing photographers. I am at the point where I am willing to call myself a good, but not exceptional, photographer.

As with most photographers with cats, or frankly, people with cats, I take pictures on my cats. They tend to make interesting subjects, and, more relevantly, they’re around (by the way, that also explains why when, during rabbinical school, a class assignment was to work on our “free-form blessings,” I was chasing the cats around trying to get them to sit still for a misheberach–they prefer to be photographed than blessed).

In January, three new cats entered our lives. Two of them are mainly black with a little bit of white. For months, now, I’ve been frustrated by this. Do you know who first decided that black cats are bad luck? I am positive it was the first person who tried to take a portrait of one. Getting black features to appear against a black body is just not something that works well for a camera, whether film or digital.

Today, therefore, is a triumph for me. I finally managed to take some decent shots of the black and white cats. The first photo is of Rosie. The second photo is of her brother, Dancer.

I admit, I may have cheated just a bit in converting the pictures to black and white. And someday, I will succeed in getting a good color picture of the cats, without too much noise showing up in the fur. But for now, I’m feeling quite clever and pleased with myself. I am also very pleased with Rosie and Dancer, who were patient subjects. Nom Nom, who took off the instant I got the camera out, I’m somewhat less pleased by, but I’ll get his photo, too, one of these days.

General Photography

The Cats of Israel

I suspect that many of you who read my blog know that I am fond of cats. The recent trip to Israel provided a great opportunity for cat watching–and photography. Throughout much of the Mediterranean, street cats are a constant presence, and part of the urban ecosystems. Israel is no exception, and I had some fun with the camera.

This cat and I made our acquaintance in Acre. A friendly sort, he enjoyed conversing and lounging. He was, however, very clear on one point. That was his tree.

Like many of the cats, he was fairly solitary, though there were a few other cats in the neighborhood.

In other places, there were groups of cats hanging out. In Capernum, for example, there was a group of three cats who were a posse. Making themselves at home, in around, under and on top of this bench, they napped and groomed, seeming to enjoy the heat of the day. It was quite warm that day, which made it perfect cat weather.

As with everything else in Jerusalem, the cats of Jerusalem are special. They clearly regard themselves as the guardians of the city, and take that responsibility quite seriously.

Admittedly, there are some who seem a bit more, ah, engaged in the whole watching over everything than others. Case in point: this feline somehow managed to find a soft couch to use as his base of operations. Most other cats in Jerusalem were out and about, whether supervising the Western Wall crowds, as these two kittens were, or stalking the wild discarded pizza, like this leopard-like fellow.

And then, there were the cats who simply sat and supervised, whether amid archaeological ruins or a wall in the old city.

General Jewish Spirituality Rabbinic spirituality


What can one say about Jerusalem. It is a city that seamlessly merges ancient and modern, building today from the same stone that the ancient Israelites used 3000 years ago. It is a city revered as holy by three faiths. It is a city which has inspired its own psychological disorder: Jerusalem Syndrome. And, it is a city of people trying to live their everyday lives.

Among the images of Jerusalem, these are the ones that predominate our imaginations: Yet, these images are only the smallest part of Jerusalem, or the Jerusalem experience.

The Done of the Rock, gleaming golden in the sun, the third holiest site in Islam, sits just above the Western Wall of the Ancient Temple. It is said that the rock at the base of the dome is the same rock upon which Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac. That rock is referred to as the Oompholos Mundi, the bellybutton of the world.

The Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, The Kotel, is all that remains (more or less) of the Second Temple. Jews have visited for centuries in an attempt to get closer to God, sticking notes into the cracks in the wall. Moving into the electronic age, you can now email your note and have it inserted. Yet pilgrims still come, and many Americans (and others) travel to Jerusalem each year to celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies at the wall (this was, in fact, the occasion for this trip to Israel: my cousin’s bat mitzvah).

The old city, however, is far more than just these holy sites. It also includes millenia of buildings, like the Domition Abbey.

No visit to the Old city of Jerusalem is complete without a trip through the markets. Crowded and bustling, the sellers are by turns friendly, cajoling, and insistent bargainers.

All of this is within the Old City. Without, there is another market, Machane Yehuda, where there are fruits, vegetable, and even kippot (yalmukes).

Yet none of this is my experience of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, for me, is a city a walk through. A modern-ish city of cafes and restaurants. A place which changes so fast that every time I visit (usually about 10 years apart), the routes I relied upon during my previous visit no longer exists, or no longer leads where it used to. It is a city in which I visit the Supersol each time, since I was 10 years old (it’s just a supermarket, but it one of my personal landmarks).

I’ve walk through the streets of Jerusalem in times of peace and times of trouble. There have been times when it was safe to take the bus, and times when no one took the bus for fear of bombs. I’ve walked these streets with family, with friends, with colleagues.

Jerusalem, despite all the change, is an eternal city. The more it changes, the more the heart of the city remains. It is a city which cannot be truly known, so much as encountered anew each day. It is a place which can spark the spirituality of our soul, or it can extinguish every spiritual impulse.

Jerusalem is a city which changes and endures. It challenges and soothes, but it is never boring.


Pretty Pictures from Israel

This post has nothing to do with Israel, except that the pictures were taken there. But they aren’t really Israel-specific. They are flowers and water, and things like that. You know, pretty pictures that happen to be taken in Israel.

And, in addition to the photos in the post, there are a bunch more in the gallery at the bottom.


Caesaria: Roman Port

As promised, I’m doing the Israel recap in chunks. Today: Caesaria. An ancient city built by Herod on the coast of Israel, dedicated to his patron, Caesar Augustus. Archaeologically developed over the last fifty years to reveal many of the original structures, it includes an ancient Roman theater (which many of us would call an amphitheater, but which our guide informed us was really a theater because it was only a semi-circle of seats, not a full circle). This stage and stone seats is still used for concerts today, and apparently holds about 4000 people.

If I’m recalling correctly, Caesaria was our first interaction with a large scale Roman ruin (though assuredly not our last). It provides an interesting view on how ruins in Israel develop, the layering of cultures on top of one another. In order to truly appreciate this, a (very) quick history lesson is probably useful.

The land which we now call Israel was inhabited and ruled by, in succession:

  • The Cannaanite (until roughly 1000 BC)
  • The Israelites (or Jews) (1000 BC – mid 500s BC)
  • The Babylonians
  • The Persians
  • The Greeks
  • The Jews (Hasmonian Dynasty–around 150 BC until a bit before the birth of Jesus)
  • Romans (63 BC – Mid 300s AD)
  • Byzantine Period (Mid 300s – Mid 600s
  • Muslim Rulers (650-ish until the Crusades ~1100)
  • Christian Crusaders (~1100 – ~1250)
  • The Mamluks (~1250 – ~1500)
  • The Ottoman Empire (1500  -  1917)
  • The British Mandate (1917 – 1948)
  • The State of Israel (1948 – Present)

Each of these cultures, (especially from the Romans forward) has their own distinctive architectural styles, but, for the most part, were building on top of the ruins or foundations of what came before. Thus we get walls such as this, in which a carved lintel from an earlier period is integrated into a later wall:

or this, where a wall is composed of various styles, clearly from different periods of construction:

I find the interaction of the various periods fascinating, not least because of the ways in which the different stone finishing techniques catch shadows and light differently.

As you may or may not know, my undergraduate degree is in Classics (Greek and Roman), and therefore I have a certain fondness for the relics and stories of those cultures. One carved stone element, in particular, caught my fancy in this regard: a carved head of a gorgon. If you recall the story, the gaze of the gorgon turns the object of the gaze to stone. However, here it is the head of the gorgon which has been turned to stone.

The layering of cultures is extensive: an ancient Roman city and port, but also the minaret from the 18th or 19th century (built upon a crusader ruin, which you can’t see in this photo:

In the interest of not writing a full travel log, and thoroughly boring you, I will append the rest of the photos as a gallery for browsing as suits your pleasure.

Caesaria, is a walk by the sea, through an ancient town. Like much of Israel, history is present in each step, and somehow feels more alive than in other places, as one sees the edifices of one culture re-purposed for the needs of another. The enduring message, for me, is that everything passes, and our great achievements are only the building blocks for those who come after.


Tropical Photos

For a variety of not very interesting reasons, I haven’t been blogging much recently, despite having some decent material. Some of that material is photographs I took recently on a family trip down to Little Cayman. Because you all wanted to see photos of my vacation, right? Just sit back, relax, I’ll get the slide projector and hold you hostage while I show you pictures of cousin Herman packing for the vacation.

Okay, not so much. They are wildlife photos, and I thought they might be of interest because I’ve been getting some very positive feedback on my nature photography. On the other hand, feel free to disregard if these photos aren’t your cup of tea.


There are a lot of Iguanas on the island, and they all look deeply prehistoric.

In addition to the reptile life, there were birds: egrets, herons and frigate birds, in particular.
Blue Heron in flight
This is a Great Blue Heron, flying off with an eel in its beak.
The most popular reason for being on Little Cayman is the diving and snorkeling. Conc shells abound, and I found them an interesting object for photographic experiments.
As always, I did a little botanical photography (a long-winded way of saying I took pictures of plants). I really liked the geometrical nature of the agave..
Watching sunrise and sunset from a tropical island is an amazing experience. Trying to photograph it is more frustrating. Especially without a tripod. Nonetheless, I hope some of the tranquility and gentle breeziness comes through in this photo.
The frigate birds, circled and flew in large groups towards dusk, before settling into some trees for the night. These birds are distinctly reminiscent of a pterodactyl, in large part because of the their long wingspan (they have the highest wingspan to weight ratio of any bird).
The iguanas were not limited to the roadways: we also had one which hung out right by the condos. All of the island iguanas seem relatively accustomed to humans, and regard them as a sources of food.
If you look carefully, you can see that the iguana on the road and the condo iguana (whom we nicknamed Iggy), are slightly different species.
Finally, I thought I'd leave you with a photo of me: massacring a coconut.

Some Photos from my Walk to Work

Been pretty busy recently, but I walked to work today and took some photos along the way. I thought I’d share them.

gardentulip-bootstulips-hyacinthmagnoliatulipsAnyway, I hope to do more writing soon. But in the meantime, enjoy spring in Portland.

General spirituality

Spring is Showing Up Around the Edges

Here in Portland, we’re seeing the first signs of spring. On my walk to work earlier this week I brought along my camera, and took a few pictures as I went. First, right outside our home: narcisusNarcissus. I don’t think I’ve noticed this being the first flowers of the spring before, but this year, it beat out the forsythia.

As I was walking to work, I definitely saw crocuses. Many crocuses. Purple onescrocuses1, yellow ones. Purple and Yellow ones. I only got pictures of a few, but you’ll have to take my word for it, there are many crocuses all over. yellowcrocuses

I’ve also seen some camelias, which is interesting in that I think of them as a much earlier flower. Nonetheless, there they wwere in full bloom.

Then there were the flowers I didn’t recognize. The wild yellow flowers that seemed sort of muppety: crazyflowersKind of cool, aren’t they?

And some reddish buds that seem about to flower: aboutoflower2aboutoflower

This is the time of year when I love walking to work, because I get to see the flowers move along day by day. Each day there are new flowers getting ready to bloom, or trees getting ready to leaf out, or various other changes of state happening all around us. So I’ll keep walking with my camera, and hopefully continue to share photos with you.


Meet Shadow (aka @invisicat)

I finally managed to get photos of Shadow. Not because she decided to come out, but because Eva and I finally decided that we’d had it with a cat who was a freeloader in our house and didn’t even have the decency to properly snub us, but rather hid all the time and did her best to pretend we didn’t exist. So on Sunday, we chased her out of her hiding place and attempted to catch her. Of course, she then fled to Hiding Place(2). So we chased her out of there, and she went to Hiding Place(3). Which happened to more or less trap her in a corner. I grappled with her, and I bled. Profusely. And she peed on me. And attempted to run back down the stairs to Hiding Place(4). But we, being the humans, had outsmarted her, and shut the door at the bottom of the stairs. And Eva was successful in corralling her. At which point we were able to contain her in one small room. We spent much of the remainder of Sunday in that room with her, being generally ignored.

Monday, I took her to the vet. No, let me rephrase. Monday morning, she I engaged in epic battle in which I bled profusely (but was not peed upon) at which point I got her into a travel kennel, and we went to the vet. Where she behaved like a perfect lady. Purred. Let me pet her. Didn’t put up any fight when the vet took her temperature or drew blood. She even explored the exam room a little, which meant I had the opportunity to take the following photos with my phone.

Tuesday evening, Eva spent the evening with her, and she agreed to be held for most of the evening. I came home, and was snubbed (she let me hold her for 10 minutes). I was home this morning, and she completely ignored me. Eva is home now, no doubt receiving tons of affection. So it goes.

No doubt this, too, will change. But at least now you have the pictorial proof that she exists.

General spirituality

Flowers on the Way to Work

I’ve begun walking to work a lot the past few weeks, which is great. It’s about a half hour walk, which is about perfect. Sometimes, though, I take it a bit more slowly, bring out the camera, and stop and smell–or more often, photograph–the flowers. This morning wsa a morning full of flowers. 

One of the things I love about Portland is the profusion of flowers we have through the spring and summer. The variety, the brightness of colors.

Some of what I love about the flowers is the diversity of color and texture. It reminds of me of knitting, in that there are bright colors, though I find that there are colors I love in nature which I would never use in something I knit. The yellow of these sunflowers is one such example. I would never knit with a yellow such as this, but in this context, the flowers are amazing and beautiful. 

Other flowers are much more my normal color-style.

 The purples and pinks of the fuscia make me really happy. The profusion of flowers on the plants don’t hurt either. 

Roses have always been a favorite of mine, in large part for their scent. I also adore the way the flower changes over time from the tight rosebud to the open, ruffled flower. Very often the color of the flower will also change as it opens, which is a wonderful treat. 

Looking at gardens in Portland, there are some other treats: Someone came by to investigate as I was taking photos of some cornflowers and lantern flowers. There was a clear sense of ownership here, and a sense that I was photographing the wrong thing. Apparently, this feline believed that portraiture was a far more appropriate art form than landscape photography. Who was I to argue?

Nonetheless, I did take some closeups of the lantern flowers.These flowers are amazing because they just don’t seem like they should be real. 

And speaking of things which may or may not look real, I took some substantial liberties in adjusting this last photo. The colors may not be exactly what my eye saw, but I find it beautiful. There is a question among photographers and lovers of photography as to whether the goal is to produce a beauty or to accurately represent reality (at least when the two are in conflict). Most of the time I satisfy myself with beauty which is an accurate reflection of reality. This time, I wanted to play a little. 

Walking to work is for me a way to get in touch with the natural world. It’s fairly easy this time of year. Cool enough that I don’t arrive at work soaked in sweat, warm enough that I’m comfortable. Dry enough that I’m not soaked by rain. I hope I’ll be able to continue throughout the year, but we’ll see how persistent I am when the weather becomes less pleasant. Each day comes, one at a time, and I’ll see how it goes, and how the landscape changes.